HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2012
What, exactly, is Old Tom gin? That was Oregon winemaker and distiller Tad Seestedt’s first question, when a friend suggested he try making a gin in the “Old Tom” style.
It was a question most anyone would have asked, and in 2006, when the conversation transpired, there was no hard-and-fast answer. Gin’s missing link is the easiest way to describe it. Old Tom is the long-lost cousin that helps make sense of the idea that malty Dutch genever and sharp-edged London dry gin are members of the same family. Old Tom is lighter and less intense than the former, more viscous and fuller-bodied than the latter, with a sweetness derived from naturally sweet botanicals, malts or added sugar. And once upon a time, it was a common sight behind the bar.
In the mid- to late-19th century, sports and sots who entered a saloon and called out “Gin!” would be handed either genever or Old Tom. Page through any cocktail book from the late 1800s and you’ll find dozens of recipes calling for it. Harry Johnson’s famous Bartender’s Manual of 1882 listed the spirit as an essential liquor “required in the bar room.” By the next century, though, it had been surpassed and supplanted by the London dry style of gin typified by Beefeater, Tanqueray and the like. The dawn of the current millennium, meanwhile, left Old Tom as unremembered as last night’s bender.
Modern bartenders, however, lust after what they can’t get, particularly if it gets in the way of their building a pre-Prohibition cocktail. Soon enough, calls for the resurrection of Old Tom mounted. “We were asked by many people if we had considered producing an Old Tom gin,” says James Hayman, the maker of Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, which was launched in 2007 and is arguably the most widely known of the new Old Toms. “The cocktail community was becoming increasingly interested in being able to make classic cocktails with the correct ingredients.”
Unlike Seestedt, who collaborated with cocktail historian David Wondrich—the friend who’d suggested he make an Old Tom—until they hit upon a formula that seemed to echo past descriptions of the vanished elixir, Hayman didn’t need to create a recipe from scratch. A descendent of the Burroughs clan, which founded Beefeater, he was in possession of an old family blueprint, dating from the 1860s. The recipe produced a spirit that had gin’s distinctive juniper snap but was softer, smoother and more approachable. “The company stopped production of Old Tom gin in the 1950s,” tells Hayman, who’s based outside London. “After the Second World War, trading conditions were difficult for any company, including ours. My grandfather, Neville Hayman, was an accountant, but he represented the interests of my grandmother—who was a Burrough—on the board. He helped shape the company to ensure it survived. Therefore, ironically, my grandfather would have been involved in our stopping production of Old Tom.”
If the arrival of Hayman’s unfamiliar new/old product confused consumers, the appearance of Seestedt’s Ransom Old Tom Gin in early 2009 befuddled them further. Both bottlings were called Old Tom, but otherwise they seemed nothing alike. For one thing, Hayman’s was clear, while Ransom was light brown, the hue of young whiskey. Their taste profiles varied widely as well.
Ransom is the marriage of a base wort of malted barley and a high-proof corn spirit infused with a fairly simple potpourri of botanicals (juniper, coriander, orange, lemon, angelica root and cardamom). The final distillation is run through an alembic pot still and then aged in wine barrels. The wood lends the gin its color and gives the gin a drier, more tannic bite than is the case with Hayman’s. “The idea behind doing a relatively short aging in barrels was to try to duplicate what would have happened years ago,” says Seestedt. “The gin would have been put in barrels and then shipped to its designation.”
“I helped Tad identify a list of the most interesting characteristics the Old Toms had and he combined them all in one,” says Wondrich. “In other words, the idea wasn’t to make an average Old Tom, but rather one that most differentiated from London dry.”
Of the two, Hayman’s is notably sweeter. This can largely be chalked up to the fact that Hayman adds sugar, whereas Seestedt does not. Seestedt contends that “the combination of pot distillation, malted barley and barrel-aging gives the impression of a slight sweetness, more body and greater viscosity.” But there’s a bit of historical controversy on this point. “Some state that some Old Tom gin was sweetened with botanicals,” said Hayman. “I personally don’t believe that. We have found nothing to confirm that.”
The personality gap between Hayman’s and Ransom would, at first blush, cause one to assume that one or the other distiller had taken a wrong turn on the way to re-creating Old Tom. But Old Tom was once a broad style, with as many exemplars as London dry has today. There was no uniform standard. “When Ransom came out, you started to realize that within the category of Old Tom—just like the category of London dry—there was a lot of [variation],” says Derek Brown, owner of the Washington D.C. bars The Passenger and Columbia Room.
Brown began pouring Old Tom the moment Hayman’s hit the market. “It’s a little maddening. You look back on these old cocktail recipes and think, ‘Dammit, Jerry Thomas, why didn’t you tell us WHICH Old Tom you used?’ It’s one of the great mysteries of cocktail history.”
Follow the Black Cat
If the first question people ask about Old Tom is “What is it?,” the second is usually about how it got its peculiar name. Again, there’s no simple answer.
As with many lost liquors, the history behind Old Tom is a patchwork of partial facts, incomplete information, and the kind of yarns that provoke cocked eyebrows. Most of the tales involve a black cat—the tom in question. Hayman’s reports that back in 1736, one Captain Dudley Bradstreet lucked into both a piece of London property and a stock of gin. Bradstreet hung a sign depicting a painted cat in the window and let it be known that doses of sweet mother’s ruin could be had at the address. “Under the cat’s paw sign was a slot and a lead pipe, which was attached to a funnel inside the house,” reads a history put together by Hayman’s. “Customers placed their money in the slot and duly received their gin. Bradstreet’s idea was soon copied all over London. People would stand outside houses, call ‘puss’ and when the voice within said ‘mew,’ they would know that they could buy bootleg gin inside. Very soon Old Tom became an affectionate nickname for gin.”
Another explanation proffered by Joseph Boord, the man behind the company believed to be the first to bottle Old Tom gin in the mid-1800s, said the name referred to an old guy named Tom who worked at his distillery. However, Boord’s label prominently featured a black cat perched atop a barrel.
One thing is for sure. At some point in the mid-1800s, the image of a dark feline became fixedly associated with Old Tom. An 1858 article in The New York Times mentioned that a brand called Old Tom London Dock Gin bore the image of a big Maltese cat on the label. And an 1892 report in the paper, an attempt to get to the bottom of the name’s origin, stated, “It is related that [Old Tom gin] was sold in a surreptitious way in 1733 by a man who had for a sign a black cat, but ‘Notes and Queries’ doubts this.”
A New Old Taste
Regardless of its origin, Brown says Old Tom is the perfect antidote for his gin-phobic customers: “They’ll say, ‘I don’t like gin.’ You say, ‘OK, but try this.’ And they say, ‘Oh, I like THIS.’ Well, that’s gin. Old Tom gin.”
Austin, Texas, bartender and beverage director Bill Norris agrees. “For me, it can be more versatile than London dry,” he says. “It’s not as aggressively flavored. So some of the more subtle nuances don’t get overwhelmed by the juniper influence. The alcohol is a bit lower, it’s a little sweeter and doesn’t have that botanical bite.”
Norris has two Old Tom cocktails on the list at Midnight Cowboy, one of the bars he oversees, including the Hauptmann Cocktail, a mix of Ransom, orgeat, orange and lemon juices, shaken with an egg white and topped with a few dashes of orange bitters. He’s also a fan of a Martini composed of equal parts Hayman’s and Dolin dry vermouth. “Before dinner, if you don’t want to blow your palate out, it’s a great option.”
Bartenders are particularly fond of using Old Tom gin to build a Martinez or a Tom Collins, two cocktails that historically called for the spirit, as well as more recent creations like the Casino, a 19th-century formula that mixed Old Tom with lemon juice and maraschino liqueur. “You read so much about Old Tom in the history of cocktails,” says Brown. “Save from finding an ancient bottle on eBay, which I was never able to do, I was never able to make those drinks.” Prior to the dawning of Hayman’s, Brown tried to make homemade Old Tom, basically by adding sugar to a London Dry. The results were less than satisfactory. Now, armed with two Old Tom gins, and his standby London Drys, Brown likes to experiment. “When you make a Martinez with Beefeater, then Plymouth, Hayman’s, Ransom and Bols, and try them all, you have five different cocktails.”
Sales of both Hayman’s and Ransom have grown steadily over the last few years, according to its makers, and now a few other brands have followed in their footsteps, including Jensen in the UK and Sound Spirits in Seattle, which rolled out its Old Tom this summer, with distribution in Washington state. Sound Spirits follows Ransom’s example by giving the gin some age and color—though, in this case, with oak chips.
But don’t expect Old Tom to reclaim the towering place it once held in the gin world. “Old Tom gin is a niche category,” admits Hayman, “but it is respected by those who understand its role in the history of gin.”